Ferdinand Cheval's Palace
In 1879, at the age of 43, Postman Cheval began building his Ideal Palace, originally called "The Temple of Nature". To build this monument consisting of four walls, a terrace and a gallery, the postman was to work for 33 years and use more than 3500 bags of lime.
Postman Cheval began his work with a fountain, "The source of life". It was built in two years with seashells, snails, oysters and various stones assembled with lime mortar, and immediately won him admiration and encouragement from his amazed family. The fountain was in close harmony with nature that he encountered in his daily rounds, lasting more than eight hours. He composed a hymn to the majesty and wonder of nature by assembling strange animals and unusual plants..
His second piece of work was the cave to the right of the waterfall that he named "St. Amadeus’ Cave" in honour of the patron saint of Hauterives. At the entrance to the cave, he recorded the date he started work: 1879. Ferdinand Cheval then made "the source of Wisdom". He continued with the Egyptian tomb that houses two vaults, as the Postman wanted to be buried in the heart of the Palace, "like the pharaohs".
As he could not be buried in this tomb, Ferdinand Cheval began, at the age of 78 to build a new tomb in the village cemetery: "The tomb of silence and endless rest". So the Ideal Palace is not just a hymn to life, but also to death that the Postman defied by building a work that would live on after him.
Above the Egyptian Tomb, small niches house oriental pagodas and temples that seem to be inviting us to set out on a journey of initiation. These constructions reflect the readings that were a source of inspiration to Ferdinand Cheval. At that time, the first reports on the wonders of the East and of Asia were appearing in such journals as the Revue illustrée, the Magasin Pittoresque or the Veillée des Chaumières.
To balance the 26 metres of the East facade, Ferdinand Cheval built a monument on each wing: the Egyptian Temple, with four columns decorated with sandstone balls and, opposite, the Three Giants, considered as one of the finest features of the Palace. These Three Giants, whose headgear is reminiscent of the Easter Island statues, with a hand which seems to point to be pointing to heaven, are the three keepers of the monument.
In the custody of the three giants, I placed the Epic of the Humble bent under the furrow
Through its plants, its entanglements, its spirals and explosions, the mystic, primitive and pagan momentum of the Ideal Palace is to be found in many other art movements coming after Postman Cheval - especially in vitalist, expressionist and surrealist architecture and in Art Brut, or "Outsider Art".
In a niche behind the giants rests the Postman’s most faithful friend, the wheelbarrow he affectionately called his faithful companion in times of trouble.
The whole is dominated by the Tower of Barbarism surrounded by a variety of vegetation: palm trees, olive trees, aloes and prickly pears. This tower serves as a reservoir for water and once fed the Spring of Life via a pipeline network. The date 1899, marked between the Three Giants is the date of completion of the eastern facade.
Going round the Temple of Nature towards the northern facade, we see a spiral staircase leading to the terrace. Below, at the entrance of the Palace Ferdinand Cheval has made time stand still :
1879-1912 : 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of ordeals
and challenges the world :
Let any man more obstinate than me get to work
The other side of the Egyptian Temple extends to the ditch that separates Postman Cheval’s first plot of land from that of his neighbour, which he bought in1896. Four columns overtop a skylight overlooking a beautiful crib made of beautiful coloured shells
In building the north facade, Ferdinand revealed the darkest part of his creative soul, through his vision of Genesis. This part of the Ideal Palace is very fragile and has suffered the ravages of time. Preserving it required substantial restoration work made possible when it was designated a historic monument.
Here, the Postman’s universalist thinking seems more structured. Ferdinand built a Hindu Temple, a Swiss Chalet, the Square House of Algiers, a Medieval Castle and a Mosque that dominates the whole.
Postman Cheval's work is a compendium of the world as he saw it. In his Palace, his morality is revealed by his inscriptions. His mythology appears in a bestiary and his perception of the cultures of five continents is reflected in the architecture. Through this array of religions and cultures, Ferdinand Cheval intended to make his Palace universal. To emphasize the main idea of his work - brotherhood between peoples - he wrote at the entrance of the mosque :
The fairies of the East come to fraternize with the West
In the entrance, going through the Mosque, we can read a poem from 1904 dedicated to Ferdinand by a Grenoble writer named Emile Roux-Parassac also known as the Alpine Bard.
In his poem, speaking of the palace, he wrote :
This is art, this is a dream, this is energy
Then, in a burst of enthusiasm :
our Palace, with its superb Ideal
Deeply touched, Ferdinand took the name of the monument from this passage: "The Ideal Palace".
The South facade contains an "antediluvian museum" in which Ferdinand Cheval stored the stones that he collected or intended to use. It is topped by a cupola and some aloes. A tree trunk and animals represented by worn stones put the finishing touch to this most sober decoration.